Virtual world teaches skills to people with autism

By Cindy Uken

The Billings Gazette

Published: Thursday, April 19 2012 3:50 p.m. MDT

In this April 5, 2012 photo, Marcus Morris, 32, is founder and executive director of Guardian Spirit, a nonprofit organization that teaches vocational, social and life skills to people with autism through simulated virtual training in Billings, Mont..

Billings Gazette, Casey Page, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

BILLINGS, Mont. — When Marcus Morris was a child, adults considered him incorrigible. Physicians incorrectly diagnosed him with multiple personality disorder, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

He grew up a ward of the state, unadoptable, and as an adult he blew through 68 jobs in 10 years, unable to earn a steady paycheck. He was void of self-worth.

Morris, now 32, eventually was diagnosed with autism, a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties and restricted, repetitive and stereotypical patterns of behavior.

He wanted to socialize with others but failed miserably and knew it.

While coming to terms with his diagnosis and treatment, Morris immersed himself in the safety of a virtual world. As he confided his habit to his therapist, his counselor suggested an online three-dimensional virtual world where Morris could socialize and connect with others.

He soon was interacting with others through an avatar, a virtual incarnation of himself. He was able to explore the world, meet people, socialize, participate in activities, and create and trade virtual property and services with others.

He thrived in this parallel universe. He could make mistakes and not be fired or chastised. He gained confidence and a renewed sense of self-worth, traits he feared were lost. He rediscovered them in a virtual website.

He is now so self-assured that on April 21, Morris, and a savvy board of directors, will launch Guardian Spirit, a 3D virtual world that Morris founded. The virtual setting is designed to teach vocational, social and life skills to people with autism through simulated training.

Developers say it will help provide a community for those with autism so they don't feel so isolated. It is being designed to accommodate different levels of development. Programs or modules within the world will address personal hygiene, some will teach body language, and others will teach vocational skills.

"We're trying to protect these people until they can take care of themselves for the rest of their lives," said Morris, who serves as executive director of the nonprofit organization. "My only goal in life is to create stability for those we're trying to help."

The launch of Guardian Spirit comes less than a month after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its estimate of autism prevalence in the United States to one in 88 children (one in 54 boys and one in 252 girls).

Autism affects more children than diabetes, AIDS, cancer, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy or Down syndrome combined. The new numbers, based on a 2008 snapshot of 14 monitoring sites, represent a 78 percent increase in autism over the previous five years. They represent 1,000 percent increase in reported prevalence over the past four decades.

Steve Zabawa, president of the board of directors, became friends with Morris about five years ago and saw Morris's confidence blossom as he engaged in the virtual world.

"His self-esteem increased dramatically," Zabawa said. "This is an opportunity to do good and bring people with autism further along throughout the world. Guardian Spirit has the potential to help autistics on a global scale right here in Billings. Nobody is using this type of training that we're aware of."

Guardian Spirit Inc. is looking for 100 participants, age 17 and older, to enroll in the virtual training world for the fall semester. The target client is a person diagnosed as a high functioning individual with autism or Asperger's syndrome. The enrollment fee is $250 in addition to a $200 monthly support fee. Grants may be available based on need.

"This is the evolution of a virtual world from recreational to cutting-edge treatment," said Jessica Karjala, a member of the board of directors and promotional consultant. "We're not just providing hope, we're providing outcomes."

Information from: Billings Gazette, http://www.billingsgazette.com

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